Last month in Politico Magazine as I chronicled how Republicans lost the culture war, I recounted how they bet wrong on gay marriage:
After 2003, many on the right were in a panic once the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court established equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians. In 2004, Republicans responded by spearheading ballot initiatives in 11 states banning same-sex marriage, including the swing states of Ohio and Michigan. Rove may not have masterminded it, but he told the Ohio media he believed the initiative would boost Republican turnout.
Republicans won the battle, but they soon lost the war. All 11 passed handily, and another seven passed in 2006. However, the mean-spirited anti-gay marriage campaign actually failed to increase Republican turnout, while alienating the younger generation of voters. American youth who had grown up treating gays equally soon propelled Barack Obama to the White House and invigorated the marriage cause. Ten years after that first round of anti-gay initiatives, same-sex marriage is on the verge of being legal in 60 percent of the country.
The politics of climate change today are roughly analogous to the politics of gay marriage 10 years ago.
Like the Massachusetts judicial fiat, President Obama’s planned Environmental Protection Agency regulations stoke panic on the right. Instead of ballot initiatives, we had several Senate races in oil and coal states where both major party candidates took pot shots at the coming climate regulations, suggesting that the order is out of step with the electorate.
And again, this dynamic is encouraging Republicans to choose “the William F. Buckley strategy: to stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop.'”
They got burned on gay marriage. The ballot initiative wins masked the rapidly rising tide of gay acceptance fueled by younger generations. In fact, the youth vote for the U.S. House broke big for Democrats in 2004 during the anti-gay, right-wing frenzy, for the first time since 1996. It has stayed with Democrats ever since.
Now Republicans risk getting burned on climate.
Just as there were signs in 2004 that Republicans were on the wrong side of history, so are there today.
While Republicans were able to penalize Democratic senators in the fossil fuel states, there were not able to in the birthplace of the American automobile: Michigan.
Republican Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land hammered her Democratic opponent for supporting a “carbon tax” (actually the 2009 House cap-and-trade bill) and “waging a war on Michigan jobs and paychecks.” But the Michigan voters have seen how a White House that’s serious about climate can also be serious about saving the auto industry. The attacks fell flat. Peters won by 13 points.
And this week’s surprise climate deal between President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping shows how Republican naysaying is out-of-step with the international community.
For years Republicans pilloried the notion of American leadership on climate, arguing that without China’s participation we would fail to impact the climate while sending jobs overseas.
Now China is clearly on board, and a global agreement is in reach, thanks in part to American leadership. But Republicans refuse to accept victory. By moving the goalposts, they make it clear that they simply want to be on the wrong side of history.
In 2004, Republicans could have made a different choice. As I noted, President George W. Bush came out in favor of civil unions as a substitute for equal marriage rights. If the rest of the party joined him then, even if they failed to stop gay marriage, Republicans would not have been deemed bigoted homophobes.
Today on climate, they could make a different choice. It was only six years ago that the Republican presidential nominee supported a cap-and-trade bill. It was President George H. W. Bush that signed into the law the 1990 Clear Act Bill that gives the current president authority to regulate carbon pollution. It was President Richard Nixon who signed the law creating the EPA. Even in 2009, President Obama’s carbon cap bill would not have cleared the House without Republican votes. (You can look it up.)
Republicans are perfectly capable of supplanting Obama’s proposed regulations to cap carbon on power plants with more comprehensive carbon cap legislation that provides subsidies to their fossil fuel industry donors and eases their transition to a clean energy economy.
But it would require foresight and courage that they almost surely lack.
Instead of making the end of the climate crisis and clean energy-powered economy a bipartisan achievement, Republicans are going to carp until the bitter end and risk giving President Obama and the Democratic Party all the credit in the history books. Too bad. So sad.